Phillies look for answers after down year


Phillies look for answers after down year

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Built to win now, the Philadelphia Phillies crumbled without their biggest star players.

The Phillies' streak of five consecutive NL East titles ended and so did their run of nine straight winning seasons after an 81-81 finish that seemed like a decent accomplishment given their awful first half.

Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay were too much for Philadelphia to overcome. The Phillies struggled to replace their Nos. 3-4 hitters who combined to miss 160 games to start the season, and sorely missed their No. 1 ace for a two-month stretch in the middle.

But can this down year be entirely blamed on injuries or are the Phillies trending downward?

``We have a talented group of guys and injury did play a part,'' general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Thursday. ``I don't like to use that as an excuse, but it is what it is. Be that as it may, we no longer are National League East champions. That goes to the Washington Nationals. We have to knock them off. We have a lot of work to do.''

Jimmy Rollins, the former NL MVP, once proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the division before they even began their title run. Then they went out and conquered the East, winning a World Series championship along the way. Rollins isn't ready to concede that the Nationals are the best team in the East, even though they finished with a major league-best 98 wins.

``With us being healthy, they're still second place,'' Rollins

That's a bold statement for sure. Rollins, however, has a point.

The Phillies played their best baseball during a 7 1/2-week stretch from July 31 to Sept. 21, going 31-17 to climb back into the postseason race after falling to a season-worst 14 games under .500 right after the All-Star break.

They were 13 games out of a wild-card spot when they traded two-time All-Star outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino hours before the non-waiver deadline, and were already looking ahead to 2013.

Then they started winning as Utley and Howard found their groove, Rollins got hot and others contributed. A seven-game winning streak had the Phillies within three games of St. Louis for the second-wild card berth on Sept. 13. After losing three of four to lowly Houston, the Phillies won four in a row to get to a season-best three games over .500. They again were three games behind the Cardinals with 11 to play only to lose seven of the last 11.

``We got ourselves in a pretty big hole early,'' pitcher Cliff Lee said. ``It was too big of a hole to dig ourselves out of. We played really well in the second half, made our season definitely more respectable, but considering how bad we were in the first half, we were very fortunate to be where we were these past few weeks.''

Since winning the franchise's second World Series title in 2008, the Phillies have taken one step backward each season. They lost to the New York Yankees in six games in the 2009 World Series, lost to the San Francisco Giants in six games in the 2010 NLCS, lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the 2011 NL division series.

Now after missing the playoffs entirely, they aim to get back in contention and make a serious run at another World Series before their aging stars are completely past their prime.

``There is urgency,'' Amaro said. ``Our core guys are not getting any younger. The bottom line is this, if our players that we paid a great deal of money to do not perform next year, we're going to be in trouble. We need them to perform.''

The Phillies owe Howard at least $105 million over the next five years. Utley has one year and $15 million left on his deal. Rollins has $33 million guaranteed over the next three seasons with an option for 2015. Lee will get at least $97.5 million for the next four years. Halladay makes $20 million next year. Cole Hamels signed a $144 million, six-year deal that begins in 2013.

Howard hit just .219 and struck out 99 times in 260 at-bats. But he also drove in 56 runs in 71 games. Utley batted just .256, the fifth straight year his average declined. Rollins hit .250, though he had a team-high 23 homers and 68 RBIs out of the leadoff spot.

Lee had a rough season, going just 6-9. But he had a 3.16 ERA and didn't get much run support. Halladay was 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA that was the second-worst in his career. Hamels went 17-6 with a 3.05 ERA.

``Ryan Howard has to perform. Chase Utley has to perform. Roy Halladay has to come back and perform,'' Amaro said. ``And we have to get that performance out of guys like (Carlos Ruiz), Hamels and Lee. If we don't get their performance, it's going to be troublesome for us. We rely on those guys to perform. We think they will. We're hopeful they're healthy. We need to support them better.''

Amaro has several holes to fill. Manager Charlie Manuel can pencil just four regulars into his lineup right now: Howard, Utley, Rollins and Ruiz. The Phillies need a third baseman and have to figure out who will play in the outfield.

Domonic Brown, a former untouchable prospect, hit .235 in 187 at-bats so he's not guaranteed a starting spot. Darin Ruf led the minor leagues with 38 homers and hit three more in 33 at-bats with the Phillies, but he still has to learn to play left field in the Venezuelan winter league.

The Phillies likely will target potential free agents B.J. Upton of Tampa Bay or Michael Bourn of Atlanta. Trading Pence gave Amaro the financial flexibility to add a high-priced player if Philadelphia chooses that route.

``There are people there who might help us,'' Amaro said. ``That said, there may be some people on the trade market that may be better for us. The free-agent market overall on the offensive side is not fantastic, but that doesn't mean we can't get better.''

Either way, Amaro has a tough task ahead.


AP freelance writers Dan Feldman and Harvey Valentine in Washington contributed to this report.

Quick Links

Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

USA Today Sports Images

Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

Here are my five key observations from the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the Jets.

— It was good that the offense clicked well in the series that Alex Smith was in the game. He was a crisp four of six for 48 yards. It wasn’t good that they couldn’t get the ball into the end zone and that Smith exited after that one series. I know there were concerns about Geron Christian being at left tackle instead of Trent Williams and Smith did get hit pretty hard on the first snap of the game. But after the starting offense sat out the preseason opener I think they needed to go for another series or two.

— The starting defense was in for two series with mixed results. The first Jets possession ended with a three and out with Daron Payne getting a third-down sack to close out the series. The second time, however, Sam Darnold like a drive that covered 42 yards and resulted in a field goal. The rookie completed passes for 13, six, 11, nine and six yards in the drive and looking every bit like the phenom that Josh Norman talked about in Richmond this week. The starting defense was good against the run, allowing 13 yards on six carries in the two drives.

— It looked like WR Cam Sims’ roster bubble was about to burst in the second quarter when he had a Colt McCoy pass in his arms in the red zone with no defender within a couple of yards of him. But the ball popped up in the air and the Jets’ Doug Middleton accepted the gift interception. But later on, he caught a key third down pass between two defenders. In that same drive he made another catch surrounded by defenders and he held onto it when he hit the ground hard. But the touchdown was called back by an illegal formation penalty. Then on the next to the last play of the game, his 20-yard reception set up the game-winning field goal.

— Tim Settle continues to impress. For a couple of drives in the second quarter the Jets’ offensive starters were up against the Redskins’ second-team defense, including Settle. The rookie manhandled former Redskins center Spencer Long on a few snaps and beat some double teams as well. Settle didn’t just impress against the run. He got a couple of pressures on Darnold and nearly got a sack. They will have to find snaps for him in the rotation if he keeps this up.

— The final word here is on playing time. For the most part, the Jets’ starters played the first half. For the Redskins it was one series for the offense and two for the defense. I have to wonder how ready this team with a new quarterback under center will perform coming out of the gate. They will be playing with fire if they don’t sweep their first two games against the Cardinals and Colts. Gruden is 0-4 in season openers as the Redskins coach. I have to say that I’m skeptical that his method of preparing the team for Week 1 will work.

Redskins 2018 news

-More fireworks with Jets: Redskins turn the tables on Pryor

-Redskins-Jets brawl: A dangerous situation

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler.

Quick Links

Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

LANDOVER, MD — Here is my instant analysis of the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the New York Jets.

— Alex Smith started the game and so did most of the other players who are expected to start Week 1. Rob Kelley was at running back, Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson lined up at receiver, and the offensive line was intact — with the exception of Geron Christian playing left tackle. Vernon Davis was the tight end. 

— Smith moved the team efficiently on the first drive, completing four of six passes for 48 yards. He converted one third-and-9 by finding Doctson in a big soft spot in the Jets’ zone for 11 yards. On third-and-goal at the 4, he threw a pass a little behind Trey Quinn; it was catchable but not easy and Quinn couldn’t handle it. A field goal made it 3-0. After that 11-play, 71-yard drive, Smith and most of the rest of the offensive starters left the game. 

— Ten of the 11 regular defenders started the game, the exception being Matt Ioannidis. In his first series in a Redskins uniform, Daron Payne stopped the drive with a sack on third down. After that three-and-out, they weren’t as effective against Sam Darnold on their second possession. The rookie was sharp leading a 12-play, 42-yard field goal drive. 

— The first time Samaje Perine touched the ball, he ran for 30 yards off left tackle, following a nice block from J.P. Holtz, a tight end who was lined up at fullback. Since they released the only fullback on the roster last week, TE as FB is likely to be the plan. Perine then left the game with an ankle injury. He did not return. 

— There were some special teams gaffes in the first half. Dustin Hopkins hit the right upright on a 35-yard field goal try but it went through. On the ensuing kickoff, though, the kick went out of bounds. Later on, Byron Marshall put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return but replay showed it that he was down. So there was one costly miscue and two near-misses. 

— The Redskins backup defensive unit was back on its heels in a second-quarter drive with most of the Jets’ offensive starters in. They ended the drive when Danny Johnson make a good tackle to force a third and one. The Jets went for it and Darnold’s pass was tipped by Deshazor Everett and intercepted by Troy Apke. Tim Settle dominated in the middle, usually matched up against former Redskins center Spencer Long. 

— It was bad news, then good news for rookie WR Cam Sims in the second quarter. First he had a pass in his hands for a first down in the red zone but the ball popped out without him being touched and the pass was picked off. On the Redskins’ next possession he made a nice catch between two defenders for a 27-yard gain on third-and-10. Later in the drive he made a leaping catch in the end zone, but a penalty negated the TD. He has been inconsistent in practice in Richmond and is carrying over. 

— The Redskins had some red zone woes in the first half. The had three shots from there and settled for field goals every time. They also had the situation where Sims had the pass in his hands in the red zone before it popped out for an interception. 

— Long shot Martez Carter got his name on the board with a runs of nine and then 30 yards, showing blazing speed around the corner on both runs. He remains a long shot but speed like that will get you some attention. 

— Third QB Kevin Hogan was able to lead a scoring drive on his first possession but it was done mostly via Carter’s runs and the first application of the new helmet rule in a Redskins’ game this preseason, a flag that went against the Jets. The next two possessions he went two for three for seven yards and the Redskins went three and out both times. 

— The Jets kicked a late field goal to take a 13-12 lead. Hogan had a chance to bring them back and got them into Jets territory. Then Cam Sims made a 20-yard grab to set up a 40-yard field goal attempt. Hopkins hit it as time ran out to give the home team a 15-13 lead. 

— The win doesn’t mean anything but it’s always more fun to win than to lose. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler